In the last two decades, the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) has established itself as one of the premier touring car championships in the world. In the first few years, the DTM followed the international ‘Group A’ production based format, but since 1993 the series adopted much more liberal regulations. Introduced in 2000, the current machines are pretty much silhouette racers with a purpose built steel tube frame and carbon fibre body. It started as a three horse race, but since Opel left, the DTM has been a duel between Audi and Mercedes Benz. The high series boasts a great mix of up and coming talents and hugely experienced drivers like two-time F1 World Champion Mika Häkkinen and seven-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen.
With 2004 champion Mattias Ekström leading the championship, the ten race 2007 season visited the Dutch Zandvoort for the seventh round. It formed the ideal occasion to visit our home track for the first time in many years. Joining this complete report is an action packed 110-shot slideshow
The situation up to Zandvoort
The twenty car field is made up of six different cars; three versions of the Audi A4 and three of the Mercedes Benz C-Class. The A4s are outwardly similar, but the 2007 car has undergone changes both to the chassis and engine, and also to the aerodynamics. At the start of the year the 2005 and 2006 cars were helped with respectively a 30 and 10 kg lower minimum weight. The change at Mercedes Benz was quite a bit bigger with the 2007 car based on the recently introduced C-Class. As with the Audis, the previous seasons’ cars were handed a weight break. To balance the cars throughout the season, the minimum weights of the cars are reconsidered with the best performing cars receiving additional ballast and the least performing cars getting some weight cut.
Audi clearly made the most of the winter and started the 2007 season off with a one-two victory for the Works team. In the next race, the 2005 champion Garry Paffett showed that a one year old Mercedes was still very competitive by taking a victory, ahead of Paul Di Resta in a 2005 vintage C-Class. The two Works Mercedes teams finally showed the true potential by winning the next four races with Mika Häkkinen taking two of them, including the last one at Mugello. The reshuffled ballasts meant that the 2007 C-Class lined up at Zandvoort weighing in at 1080 kg, while Championship leader Ekström only had to hurl around 1060 kg worth of Audi A4. It was not only the seventh race of the season, but also the seventh successive visit of the DTM to the Circuit Park Zandvoort with both manufacturers taking three wins back to Germany.
Test and practice sessions
For the DTM cars the weekend was kicked off by the so called ‘Roll Out’, which saw the cars take to the track for a short, non-timed session. The more serious work came in the two 90-minute ‘Test’ sessions, intended for the drivers to get a feel for the cars and the tires. The teams did have to be a tat conservative as they only have 10 sets of tires available for the entire weekend. The weekend started out in the worst possible way for Vanina Ickx, who missed the braking point for the first corner on her first timed lap. She got stuck in the gravel and was unable to take part in the remainder of the first test and the second test as her Audi was apparently extensively damaged by the retrieval crew. It was the only blemish on a very fine day for Audi, who clearly made the most of the Mercedes’ weight penalty. Timo Scheider dominated both test sessions with his 2007 A4 with similar cars of Ekström, Tomczyk and Kristensen never far behind.
On the Saturday morning, there was a final ‘Free Practice’ of an hour to dial the cars in for the qualifying shoot-out later in the day. Not surprisingly, Scheider once again topped the sheets, although his closest rival was now Paul Di Resta in his brightly livered 2005 Mercedes. In this session Vanina Ickx did take to the track, but she was substantially slower than the rest; probably the result of the two missed test sessions.
Similar to Formula 1, the DTM’s qualifying is split up in three ten-minute sessions and at the end of each of the first two sessions six cars are eliminated. So the top eight runners have to put in at least three qualifying laps. It did not quite work out this way at Zandvoort as the first session was red-flagged with two minutes to go. Sadly it was again Ickx, who went for a closer look of the pebbles. This time she lost the A4 in the tricky, high-speed ‘Scheivlak’ corner. She barrel-rolled the car once as she hit the gravel sideways; fortunately she was unharmed and the car looked repairable. Instead of completing the final two minutes, the second session was extended and started early, so there were 19 cars dicing it out to get in the top eight and the final session. The pattern of the previous sessions continued as there were six Audis in the top eight. The biggest names left out were Bernd Schneider and Häkkinen, who were stuck in fourteenth and thirteenth respectively. They could find consolation in the thought that Häkkinen won the previous race while starting from a lowly fifteenth position. Scheider continued his good form and pipped Ekström for pole by less than five hundredths of a second. It was only the second pole of Scheider’s career; the previous one was clinched here as well, a few seasons earlier. The best Mercedes driver was Bruno Spengler, who secured a sixth position just ahead of Di Resta.
A wet Sunday morning
Rain was expected for the entire weekend, but it wasn’t until the race morning that the drivers got their first taste of the wet during the 30-minute warm-up. Sadly only 19 cars made it out on track as Vanina Ickx her Audi could not be repaired in time and she also had to forfeit the race. It was by no means a regular, easy going warm-up as most drivers were out trying to find the limit in the wet. With no electronic aids, these cars can be quite a handful during slippery conditions. Through many corners, the Zandvoort track is banked, which meant that a wider line could also be a dryer line. Susie Stoddart took that approach a little too far as she slid wide in the ‘Gerlach’ corner, softly bouncing off the tires back onto the track. The front right corner of her Mercedes was damaged, but she carried on like nothing had happened. At the end of the session, Garry Paffett topped the charts.
There was more drama right before the start of the race as Daniel La Rosa was pulled into the pit lane with mechanical problems. He would not emerge again, so eighteen cars lined up for the 38-lap race. The good news was, especially for the Audis, that the track had dried up and the skies no longer looked ominous.
At exactly 1 pm, the lights turned from red to green and the eighteen machines diced towards the ‘Tarzan’ corner. Fast all weekend, Scheider made a poor start and came out in second place behind Mattias Ekström. The only incident in the first corner involved Lucas Luhr and Paolo Di Resta, but both of them could continue the race, although well in arrears. Audi’s pace advantage in qualifying was still one bit and the lead group of A4s gradually pulled away. Further down the field a group got stuck behind the hugely Christian Abt in his Playboy backed A4. As soon as the pit window opened, at the end of the sixth lap, some of the drivers stuck behind Abt dive into the pit for the first of two mandatory pit stops. Abt goes in as well and exists side by side with the young Bruno Spengler and using all his experience, the German manages to get ahead again. As all the lead drivers pulled into the pits, Mathias Lauda and Susie Stoddart emerged as the leaders. They would not pit for the first stop until well into the race, after the leading cars had already made their second.
The two pit stops saw the leading group reshuffled with Tomczyk coming out on top ahead of young talent Alexandre Prémat. Some amazing pit work saw Spengler jump not only Abt, but almost all other Audis as he emerged in third after the second stop. He was closely chased by the quicker Ekström and Scheider respectively. Courtesy of some wheel banging and astute overtaking manouvres both got by, leaving Mercedes to content with fifth and seventh for Häkkinen. With a brave move Prémat dove on the inside of Tomczyk in the ‘Scheivlak’ corner, looking set to claim his first victory. Sadly team-orders prevented the young Frenchman to pick the fruits of his labour and he was told to let the German driver through before the finish. Understandably Mercedes Benz Motorsport supreme Norbert Haug was not happy at all with these ‘Ferrari’ tactics. Tomczyk jumped to second in the standings past Spengler. With three races to go, Audi look set to take both the driver’s and team’s championships.
Despite the poor weather prediction, 78,000 people flocked to the track to watch the show. Before and after the DTM race, they were entertained with a several single seater and tin-top races that also boasted plenty of action, enhanced by the changeable weather conditions. The DTM race itself also provided for plenty of excitement, but it was sad to see the fastest man of the race not take the victory he deserved. With talented and experienced drivers, high tech machinery and a very professional organization there is little wrong with the DTM, although a third manufacturer (Alfa Romeo perhaps) would make for an even better show.